Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 17

Since I’m behind in compiling my old school D&D posts from twitter, here’s another post!

Operation Seventh Seal (1985), by Evan Robinson. Let’s look at an adventure from another TSR roleplaying game, Top Secret!

Top Secret was introduced in 1980 as a contemporary espionage roleplaying game, designed by Merle M. Rasmussen and published by TSR.

Looking back on playing Top Secret as a teen, I’m struck at how strange it is: it is effectively “spy D&D,” with a group of 4ish spies accomplishing missions. But can you imagine anything less practical than doing espionage as a *group*?

So some of the earlier published missions involved more “climax of James Bond movie” raids, where the group infiltrates a hostile complex by air or sea.








The later modules became more subtle, and included better graphics. One of my favorites is TS005: Operation Orient Express, a series of short missions on the famed train line…

… and TS006: Ace of Clubs, where the agents investigate a series of mysterious deaths as a luxury resort that is a cover for a spy training academy!

(An aside: I reeeeeally want to run an online game of Ace of Clubs, because it is a cool module and it is also hilarious for reasons that I don’t want to spoil.)

TS008: Operation Seventh Seal was the last published module for the original edition Top Secret, and it ends up being a mix of subtle investigation and armed raids!

The mission is described succinctly on the back cover of the module: terrorists known as the “Four Horsemen” will destroy Los Angeles with a nuke unless they are paid ONE BILLION DOLLARS. The only clue is a murdered detective who is connected somehow to the case.

The cover is a bit of a hint of the plot progression, but also does a bit of a red herring: a Chinese man is featured prominently on the cover, leading one to think that it is a Chinese plot, but this is not the case!

(Not that the adventure doesn’t try hard to make the players think otherwise: one of the early encounter areas is a fortune cookie factory!)

The real culprits are a domestic group of fanatics obsessed with the occult. There’s a nice twist in the adventure where the codes to deactivate the bomb require the appropriate use of tarot cards!

The real charm of the adventure, however, is the photo set of pregenerated characters, which are clearly photos taken of the staff at TSR!

Seventh Seal would be the last publication for the original edition Top Secret. In 1987, Top Secret/S.I. would be released, which was a more flashy, techy Bond-esque game. I miss the Cold War feel of the original, though!

Hour of the Knife (1994), by Bruce Nesmith and Lisa Smedman. Okay, this is a fascinating adventure, and I can’t describe it properly without some significant spoilers, so consider this a warning!

As the title (and cover) strongly suggests, it is an adventure based on the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in Victorian London around 1888. This is quite a change in tone from traditional D&D, which is why it is set in the Ravenloft campaign setting.

What is Ravenloft, you ask? It started as a single adventure module published in 1983 and written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. It presented, for the first time, a gothic vampire adventure intended to provide a scary atmospheric D&D experience.

Ravenloft was such a huge success that a sequel appeared in 1986, but the folks at TSR eventually realized that they could do so much more with this setting.

In 1990, Ravenloft was expanded to a full campaign setting, with the Realm of Terror boxed set. Now Ravenloft was officially a demiplane, with some 30 sub-realms ruled by classic monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and liches.

It became one of the more successful product lines of AD&D, and was introduced for 2nd edition with the Ravenloft Campaign Setting.

“Ravenloft” is a demiplane ruled over by the Dark Powers — unseen and unknown deities who control the plane for their own inscrutable purposes. The visible rulers, such as Strahd the vampire, are essentially puppets of the Dark Powers, trapped in the Demiplane of Dread.

The different realms of the demiplane are isolated by magical mists that confuse and misdirect travelers. These mists can also appear in any campaign world, serving as a way to draw PCs in from any campaign for a horror excursion.

Almost every Ravenloft adventure therefore has an introduction where the PCs are brought against their will to the new location. In Hour of the Knife, they could fall asleep in a wilderness camp to wake up on a city street with carriages rattling past them.

The city in question is a smaller subdomain for Ravenloft, Paridon, which serves as a Victorian London substitute. The city is the entirety of the domain, which is surrounded by the impenetrable mist.

The PCs awaken just in time to witness a murder — the brutal slaying of a women by a sinister knife-wielding man. This will be the first of six murders, if they fail to solve the mystery and unmask the culprit.

The culprit, in fact, is using a magical dagger that can convey immortality for 150 years if it drains the blood of six victims. It was used by the ruler of the demiplane, but has been stolen by one of his subjects who seeks to dethrone him.

Okay, now for some spoilers! I usually avoid them, but it’s hard to talk about this adventure properly without sharing some! Last chance to skip ahead…

The ruler and the murderer are both members of a clan of dopplegangers, and can change their forms at will. With dozens of dopplegangers on hand, and the PCs wandering the fog-shrouded streets of an unknown city, they are almost guaranteed to have several murdered and replaced.

This is one of the few adventures I know of that encourages DMs to kill the players off! ANY time a PC wanders off alone, unsupervised, for a single round is enough time for them to be killed and replaced.

The player is not told that their character has been switched, so that they carry on as normal… until the DM makes their character join in an ambush of all the other characters!

All is not lost, however… those PCs murdered early on (possibly all of them) can get a second chance at life thanks to the lord of the demiplane, who wants his dagger back! This comes at a cost, however.

The climax of the adventure involves the PCs being herded by werecreatures to the mansion of the killer, where he seeks to finish them off. The players will have to be very clever, because there are MANY dopplegangers and they will take every chance to eliminate PCs!

It is a fun adventure because of the clever tactics of the monsters, who always rely on surprise and ambushes. I’m not sure any other adventure I’ve seen can lead to the amount of fear and paranoia of this one!

The freedom with which characters are eliminated and replaced also reflects the adventure’s origins as a tournament adventure run at conventions, where death for the unwary is much more acceptable!

PS this is another adventure that is sold with a disclaimer on roll20 due to “ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice.” In this case, I suspect the issue is mirroring the Ripper murders too closely, with female sexworker victims. If I were to run it, I would vary the victims.

Netheril: Empire of Magic (1996), by slade with Jim Butler.  This is one of those classic products I didn’t even know existed until recently!

This one is weird and fascinating, as it answers the question: what happened before the Forgotten Realms became the Forgotten Realms we know today? Well, it turns out that 5,000 years earlier, a powerful magic empire formed, which ended up corrupt and destroying itself.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, you’re probably thinking of the classic legend of Atlantis, which Netheril clearly draws from.

In the time of Netheril, magic is much more powerful and less regulated by the gods, which allowed the Netherites to becomes incredibly powerful, with their most powerful arcanists (magic-users) creating floating cities that they ruled over as tyrants.

The rules of magic are different in Netheril, and almost all Netherites learn some basic cantras that help them do household chores.

But the *real* kicker is that magic levels don’t have an upper limit! In ordinary AD&D, the highest spells are 9th level… in Netheril, there are spells up to 12th level. For example: Mavin’s Create Volcano is tenth level, and… allows you to make an actual volcano!

And the only 12th level spell, Karsus’ Avatar, was cast only once: Karsus temporarily took the power of the god Mystul. However, Mystul is the god of magic, and with Mystul’s power gone, magic disappeared… and the floating cities fell, ending the Netheril Empire.

The rash hubris of Karsus was undone by Mystul who, with their dying act, sacrificed themselves to save some of the inhabitants of the cities. Mystul was replaced with Mystara, who put new, strict limits on magic, making the AD&D rules we know today.

The magic rules for PCs in Netheril are more flexible, and hint at more enjoyable rules that would appear in 3rd editions and beyond. For instance: arcanists don’t have available spells, they have “arcs.” Each spell cast costs a number of arcs equal to its level.

And look at that freaking maximum level for arcanists!!!

Priests have similar flexibility with “winds,” with mechanics that work analogously to arcs.

Soooo much to say about Netheril magic! All the generic-named spells in “modern” AD&D have their proper-named originals in Netheril.

One potential challenge for running Netheril campaigns: what do you do if PCs want to time travel their modern characters into Netheril, and try and stop the apocalypse? Well, Mystara was so annoyed with humanity that she put strict rules on time travel into Netheril.

Essentially, modern PCs can only travel to Netheril for one year at a time, and cannot bring any “modern” spells or conveyances with them. It is designed to make it hard for players to muck things up much, kinda like Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Which is good, because the first adventure for the Netheril setting, How the Mighty Are Fallen, is set in the final days of the realm, where the PCs can basically participate in events leading to the end!

(I really kinda want to run this adventure now, because it is wild and crazy and epic.)

One more bit of Netheril trivia: a major enemy of the era are the phaerimm, monstrous creatures who hate the magic use of the Netherim and can cast powerful magic-negating counterspells! Very Lovecraftian.

Worth noting that this isn’t the only “pre-historical” setting that TSR introduced. For their basic D&D line, they incorporated Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor setting into the Mystara setting in the mid-80s. It was also destroyed by an apocalyptic accident!

As for Netheril, I really love how it brings a new sense of awe into AD&D, with super-powerful magic and incredibly ancient civilizations. And at least one Netheril lich, Larloch, has survived into the Forgotten Realms!

PS according to drivethrurpg, Netheril was always a part of Ed Greenwood’s vision for the Forgotten Realms (since the 1970s), but rarely got much of a mention in print until the Netheril products were introduced and written up by others.

PPS it occurs to me that the story of Netheril, a society that grew in power but not wisdom and eventually collapsed, could very well be a metaphor for TSR itself, which would go bankrupt in 1997, only a year after Netheril: Empire of Magic was published. I wonder if that was intentional?

Earthdawn (1993), by a team at FASA Corporation. This is one that I have a personal connection to!

I have some personal knowledge about the making of Earthdawn because I worked conventions and playtesting for FASA back in college and early grad school. I was a playtester for Earthdawn, and my name is in the book! See? There I am!

So this thread is a bit about the game itself as well as some personal recollections about the thinking behind it (though some details may be slightly off, of course, as I’m going by memory).

By the time that Earthdawn was planned, FASA Corporation had the 2nd most popular RPG out there — Shadowrun, a fun mix of future cyberpunk and fantasy set on Earth. As FASA folks said, “people were playing D&D; if not that, Shadowrun; if not that, something else.”

So it was natural for FASA to see if they could go a step further and claim some of the high fantasy RPG market long held by TSR with D&D. Some folks at TSR described their new project as a “D&D slayer.” (This was mostly a joke, I believe, as they weren’t interested in destroying D&D, but their goal was to make a game that would serve as a worthy competitor.)

So a lot of work and thought went into make a game that was distinct from D&D but would capture the same “feel” and “magic” that made it popular. They brought in Greg Gorden, the brilliant fellow who made the rules for TORG, to create the mechanics for Earthdawn.

One lesson learned from the success of D&D? That D&D players love rolling and collecting weird-shaped dice, so Earthdawn would feature all the polyhedral dice, not just a bazillion d6s like Shadowrun had used.

Stats were designed to be similar to D&D as well, with 4d6 (highest 3 kept) rolled for each of Dexterity, Strength, Toughness, Perception, Willpower, and Charisma. One could also assign points for attributes, if randomness wasn’t your thing.

But Earthdawn would make major departures in its choice of races and classes. Familiar types are present, like elves and dwarves, but also unusual new races, such as the stony Obsidiman and tiny but magically powerful Windling.









Some standard disciplines (classes) were also present, like a standard wizard, warrior, and thief, but also more unusual types such as archers, cavalrymen, and nethermancers.









Some disciplines are very specific to the Earthdawn world, such as sky vikings, who fly and raid in magical sky ships.

D&D always had a weakness in calculating the odds of anything not combat. In fact, it also had relatively bad mechanics for combat. In Earthdawn, the result of an action determined by the use of a certain number of action dice, which are based on attributes and skills.

You can really see a lot of the thought that went into deconstructing what works and doesn’t in D&D. It was recognized that low-level D&D characters don’t get much to do. So every discipline gets “talents” to use. This anticipated the much more flexible 3rd edition D&D rules!

Talents are magical abilities that each class possesses. But each character can also get a few ordinary nonmagical “skills.” The goal? Make sure that every character (and player) has something interesting to do in combat and out of it.

Spellcasting was also given additional thought. In early D&D, casting spells involved almost no dice rolling, other than damage. Earthdawn introduced additional mechanics, like “threads” that have to be woven into spells, to give casters their own challenges.

Higher-levels spells have more threads, and it takes time to weave threads — but the process can be rushed, with more risk of failure. This added an element of strategy: balancing the need for speed with the need to succeed!

They really went out of their way to come up with some unusual and distinct spells for Earthdawn! Here’s another fun one.

FASA really went all out in developing Earthdawn! In addition to full-color prints throughout the book, they included punch-out magic item cards.

A lot of thought went into developing the world of Earthdawn, as well. For instance: why would there be a bazillion dangerous dungeons peppered throughout the landscape, filled with treasure? Here’s where the story gets interesting.

In Earthdawn, magic is apparently cyclic, swelling and diminishing over ages of time. When it is on the upswing again, mages of the world of Barsaive learn a horrible secret: when magic grows strong enough, the boundary between the world and other dimensions will weaken, and The Horrors will arrive. Evil, monstrous extradimensional beings that will overwhelm and consume the world. At the height of magic, they will be unstoppable and will kill everything living.

This cataclysm will be known as The Scourge. To protect against it, as it will last 100s of years, the civilizations of the world built massive underground defensive shelters, known as kaers, to survive until magic declines and the Horrors retreat.

The Horrors come in all types. The weakest ones are mindless eating machines; the most powerful are nigh unstoppable and often feed on the pain, suffering and madness of sentient beings. Here’s one of them, Verjigorm, which specialized in hunting dragons during The Scourge.

Some kaers weathered The Scourge. Some were breached by Horrors and became ruins, filled with monsters and remaining Horrors. Others were infiltrated by intelligent Horrors before they were sealed and destroyed from within.

Some elves built living bunkers, surmising that the Horrors could not penetrate their defenses. But they miscalculated, and as the defenses began to weaken, they used magic to cause painful thorns to rip through their skin. The intelligent Horrors who were the most danger cared not for creatures in perpetual pain, so the Thorn Elves had saved themselves, but at a terrible cost.

Generations passed, and the surviving kaers waited for magic to descend to a level where all the Horrors would be gone. But… the magic dropped to a lower level, and stayed there. After more years, explorers started leaving the kaers to explore the world, finding a world in which the Horrors still remain, but not all of them. And the different civilizations start to rebuild, and jockey for power in a world that is newly reborn. “Earthdawn.”

(Actually, in the lore, “Earthdawn” is the name of the first sky ship to explore the new world and return with its crew alive. However, they are later overwhelmed by Horrors on a later expedition and the Earthdawn becomes a ghost ship.)

Even ordinary monsters in Earthdawn were reimagined to be distinct from D&D. The one that always makes me laugh: instead of “zombies” from D&D, you have “cadaver men” in Earthdawn.

If the story of magic rising sounds weirdly familiar, you may be an old school RPGer: this is also the basic premise of Shadowrun, where our ordinary boring ol’ Earth suddenly experiences a magic awakening. This parallel is not a coincidence!

The 1994 Shadowrun adventure “Harlequin’s Back” would be a crossover of sorts, where the characters must race to prevent the Horrors from breaking through into the world of Shadowrun from the Astral plane much too early! Earthdawn is basically a Shadowrun prequel.

Earthdawn lives! The original game was dropped by FASA in 1999, basically the same time that TSR went under. But it survived in new editions licensed by other companies, and a fourth edition was released by a reconstituted FASA in 2014!

One last personal note to conclude: one spell in the game is Puddle Deep, in which an Elementalist spell-caster can temporarily turn a puddle into a deep pool, perfect for traps!

The spell even got a small illustration in the book! And… it’s *my* spell! I came up with the idea during playtesting, and it made it into the book. They nerfed my ridiculously overpowered version, but I’m still proud of my small contribution to the game.

PS my name appears in at least one other FASA game as a playtester…


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3 Responses to Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 17

  1. I was always a bit foggy on Earthdawn, and you helped correct that. Nice post!

  2. Phillip Harmsworth says:

    At least some of the covers here and in installment #16 are ripe for inclusion in Fake Book Titles Extravaganza #5.

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